Renew, reuse and rock

Will Chico’s ever-changing roster of music venues ever include a new downtown spot?

Kirk Johnson talks with a local punk rocker about a potential gig inside his unfinished downtown clothing store.

Kirk Johnson talks with a local punk rocker about a potential gig inside his unfinished downtown clothing store.

Photo By Jason cassidy

The 100 block of West Second Street, between Broadway and Main, in downtown Chico has not seen a true live-music venue in years. This centrally located, historically rich strip has been home to a string of clubs—Burro Room, Stormy’s Off Broadway, Juanita’s and the Riff Raff—and the attendant businesses that contributed to the block’s scene—Pizza Face, Oy Vey Bagels, Hey Juan’s restaurant, Pegasus and more.

Funky spots still mark the area—Naked Lounge, Banshee, Brooklyn Bridge Bagels and, until recently, BOHO clothing boutique—but live music has not returned since Stormy’s and the Riff Raff faded away in 2004.

But this past Saturday night, a couple of Chico rock bands, Mute Witness and Surrogate, turned up the volume on Second Street with a one-show experiment in the now-empty BOHO location, giving a glimpse of what a music venue on the block would feel like.

A dim glow from the stock room at the back of the store barely lit the band and audience as the members of Mute Witness stood silhouetted in the darkness with crystal chandeliers wrapped in plastic for painting hovering above them like mechanical ghosts.

In the wake of the departure of drummer Tino Marrufo, Mute Witness’ talented core has been augmented by the frenetic energy of Donovan Melero, whose shaggy hair and lanky limbs alike swung steadily behind his drum set in the background. This was in contrast to the meditative swayings of frontmen Rett Mathews, Daniel Nelson and Ryan Maker, whose Beatle-esque three-part harmonies continue to be a staple of the group’s live performances.

It should be said that this venue is not a new all-ages club. By March, owner Kirk Johnson (who co-owned BOHO) hopes to reopen with an as-yet-unnamed shop in the vein of BOHO—featuring locally made and second-hand fashions, plus some new items—and as he did with frequent afternoon live shows at the old shop, he plans on hosting live music events as well.

For Saturday night’s concert, the shop was called “The Ballroom” (inspired by the old shop’s hanging chandeliers). The resourceful Mathews and band mate Michael Lee negotiated the show with Johnson, and they hope to continue the relationship and shows under Lee’s independent record label, Parapet Records.

“We would like to try to book shows once a month,” Mathews said, “whenever we can work it out [with Johnson] to clear out the space and have bands.”

In a town that is host to a dozen or so buzz-worthy shows each week, it’s surprising that more new venues haven’t surfaced closer to downtown Chico.

Even though Second Street has remained mostly quiet, over the past couple years there have been an impressive number of new venues to come along (and, in some cases, to go away) in Chico: Café Culture, TiON/The Frame, Under Western Eyes and The Down Lo.

Most recently, the Chico Cabaret Theatre has begun dabbling in the live-music scene, in addition to its regular schedule of theater events. Billy DiBono—who will be booking the shows—recently played with his band The Secret Stolen to a packed house at the north Chico theater. DiBono explained that shows at the Cabaret will be held a few times a month on Sunday nights, when most of the other local venues don’t book shows.

“It’s got a stage, lights and theater-type seating, which I think is really unique,” DiBono said. “The acoustics in that place actually are pretty good, from folk to rock.”

Surrogate closed out the night at “The Ballroom” with a crowd-pleasing set of choice favorites (plus a moving cover of Nada Surf’s “Do It Again”). Vocalist/guitarist Chris Keene and drummer Jordan Mallory seemed privy to some running joke as the two conferred between songs, while bassist Daniel Taylor asserted himself from his otherwise silent role behind the microphone with signature witticisms, much to the raucous enjoyment of friends and strangers.

“This is the reason I came to Chico,” a Chico State freshman who randomly wandered into the show from the street explained to Taylor, “for the music scene.”